Along the way: Central plains and midwest

Leaving the great national parks in the Rockies I didn’t see how anything could top those experiences for OMG factor. And to be sure, we haven’t seen anything on the scale of the Tetons and Yellowstone. But I had little expectation for the beauty we would find next.

June 26-27: The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse

Bismark Lake Campground, Black Hills National Forest

Bismark Lake Campground, Black Hills National Forest

Needles Highway, Custer State Park South Dakota

The Needles Highway, Custer State Park, SD

We were welcomed to the Black Hills of South Dakota by threatening clouds and a distant dry lightning storm. And we almost made it to our Bismarck Lake campsite in the Black Hills National Forest before the clouds opened up. But not quite. We fled into the Airstream, then sat in the dark with a glass of scotch, enjoying a 180º show of continuous lightening for 50-60 minutes.

We wish we’d stayed longer in the beautiful Black Hills: lush Ponderosa forests strewn with granite outcroppings, towering spires, and wildlife everywhere. We drove the Needles Highway—whoever decided to engineer a road through these rocks was a little unbalanced. We hiked the Cathedral Spires trail up to a high valley surrounded by rock towers; and gained a little appreciation for the sacred place these hills held for the Plains Indians.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, SD

Crazy Horse Memorial,

Crazy Horse Memorial, Black Hills, SD

You can’t avoid Mount Rushmore if you’re in the neighborhood, but it was frankly anticlimactic, having seen so many photos. I’d have liked to walk around on their heads like in North by Northwest, but that’s not on the regular tour. Knowing the Indians see this carving into their hills as one more insult to their sacred place—with images of some presidents who permitted Indian removal and massacre—that puts it in a different perspective.

One Lakota elder took it on himself to do something about it. In 1939, Henry Standing Bear inspired Korczak Ziolkowski to make it his life’s work to sculpt an image of a great Lakota hero into a nearby mountain. The controversial Crazy Horse Memorial has been in progress since 1948 and is less than half realized, but it will dwarf the heads of Mount Rushmore when it’s finished.

June 28: Wind Cave National Park

Wind Caves National Park

Boxwork in Wind Cave National Park, SD

Always curious about geology, and being focused exclusively above ground, we traveled 200 feet underground. Since it was once under an ocean, the limestone of Wind Cave National Park is composed mostly of seashells. 350 million year old seashells. Advancing and retreating seawater, geological uplift, and fracturing over those years left hundreds of miles of cave spaces within the limestone. And beautiful boxwork, frostwork and popcorn formations. About 140 very dark miles have been mapped (and lit); it’s thought that only about half of the caves have been discovered. Oh, and there are buffalo (but those area above ground).

June 29: The Badlands

Heading south we stopped at the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. You turn off the main road and head across a prairie, then with no warning a crack in the earth opens up immediately before you, then widens out into 100 miles of red-banded, fissured cliffs. They’re soft sedimentary rock and clay, worn by water into tortured gullies—there’s an inch of erosion each year. You can’t help but imagine settlers driving up and thinking: what next, locusts?

June 29-July 2: Crossing Nebraska and Iowa

Dropping down and crossing northern Nebraska and Iowa brought a distinct change of topography—i.e., it’s really flat here! What we’d call a normal cycling hill in Seattle, they call a mountain. Driving and biking through little towns and country roads, you appreciate the pride taken in many small, neat farms; and the roadside produce stands.

Henry and Nettie Mosher, Oakridge Cemetery, West Liberty Iowa

My great, great grandparents, West Liberty

Ashfall Fossil Beds Historical Park

Ashfall Fossil Beds Historical Park, NE

One of our best let’s-take-a-break-from-driving stops was Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. When an Idaho volcano went off about 12 million years ago, the ash buried Rhinos (in Nebraska; who knew!), Giraffe-like Camels, 3-Toed Horses, Raccoon-Dogs, and other exotic species that gathered around a waterhole. More than 200 skeletons have been uncovered, laying where they died, and the paleontology student summer interns earnestly want you to ask questions about them.

And, learning that I have ancestors in the area—mom’s dad was born in West Liberty, Iowa—I was thrilled to discover that I could visit them in two small cemeteries. We found my great grandparents and my great, great grandparents in Oakridge Cemetery. And then visited my great, great, great grandparents, Stephen and Ruth Mosher, in North Prairie Cemetery.

July 3-5: Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, Davenport Iowa

Nick Moss Band, Mississippi Valley Blues Festival

Nick Moss Band, Mississippi Valley Blues Festival

We zipped across Iowa fairly quickly to get to the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival for the July 4th weekend in Davenport. (I didn’t know the blues were big in Iowa either!) Which was a terrific little festival of bands mostly from the Midwest blues belt. The highlight for us had to be Nick Moss and his band, keeping the Chicago blues alive but with a little funk and soul mixed in. Unfortunately the fireworks were cancelled (and the venue moved to higher ground, twice) as the Mississippi was a little out of control.

July 6-8: Springfield, Illinois

Lincoln's House, Springfield Illinois

Abraham Lincoln’s House, Springfield, IL

Lincoln's New Salem Illinois

Lincoln’s First Store, New Salem, IL

Because I love to learn more about famous dead presidents, we next headed south to New Salem, Illinois, where Abe Lincoln tried his hand at about six different jobs in six years after leaving his father’s home. And to Springfield, where, as you know, he started his career in the law and politics, started his family, and won his bid for the presidency. Can I just tell you how much I love walking around his well-preserved home and neighborhood (now a national park), and walking up his stairs holding the banister he held while carrying his young boys to bed? I live for that stuff!

This ended up being a pretty long post, so I’ll break off here, and pick up next with our stop in Chicago. Until then, we love hearing from you. Keep your cards and letters coming!

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